The stories app developers must learn to tell

Shane Schick

As much as it would be helpful, there is no guaranteed owner's manual to running an app development business, but if there were, a title like "How I Got 2.3 Million Downloads (Without Spending A Cent On Marketing)" would work quite well.

Instead, the recent post on Medium by Stuart Hall offers the kind of crash course that puts most universities and part-time courses in iOS or Android development to shame. Hall admits he started from a position of success, having co-founded a music startup called Discovr, but rather than resting on his laurels, it only fueled his ambition:

I wanted to build an app in one night, not tell a single person about it and run some experiments on it to see if I could get it to some level of success. I thought maybe I could get a few thousand downloads and make a couple of hundred bucks.

I wanted an idea that I had no domain advantage in at all, so what better for a chair-bound developer than a fitness app.

It's fascinating to read about someone who combines the almost artisanal embrace of creative restraints that an indie developer would have with the nimble willingness to pivot on strategy of a startup founder. Hall's post is filled with charts and a step-by-step look at how his app, the 7 Minute Workout, went from paid to free to IAP-driven to press and user darling. For those who don't have time to wade through it all, allow me to offer up the "too long/didn't read" insight: Developers need to build not just a great app but a great story. 

Think about some of the biggest, most successful technology companies in the market today. Even before The Social Network, many people knew the bare bones of Mark Zuckerberg's rise to glory. Uber's ongoing takeover of the taxi cab industry began like an app version of David and Goliath and quickly became much more controversial, but also incredibly compelling. Twitter seems to inspire book after book detailing its complicated history. 

Hall's post, meanwhile, is just the latest in a series of stories he's told about the 7 Minute Workout. Instead of taking the approach film studios once did by including a "making of" featurette when the DVD version of the movie came out, Hall shows how keeping the audience engaged from the very beginning can pay off--in his case, to the tune of a full-time salary and a buyout within a year and a half. 

As the number of apps and mobile games keep growing, it's going to get harder and harder to stand out. Programming skill alone won't cut it. Developers need to come out from behind the curtain and begin telling more stories, and more interesting stories, about why their vision for their app should succeed. And then once it does, they can act like Hall and take a bow.--Shane